It has become a sacred ritual for me to slip into a pensive state of mind a few days before my birthday – a sort of symbolic initiation – and this year was no different. As I was on the verge of turning twenty-one, I vividly recollected and reminisced the most intimate moments of my life: the gnawing realisation of leaving adolescence behind, the culture of having disposable friends, the utter frustration of finding intimacy in a digital era, the ignorance that comes with material privilege, the banality of studying for grades, and perhaps the most fundamental question of all: who was I in the grand scheme of things, and what was my true purpose?
For most of us, our purpose is intrinsically linked to success as a specific end-goal, be it professional or personal. Having the foresight to make these goals is an intimate part of being human, and serves as an important guiding compass. If it weren’t for goal-setting during formative years, we wouldn’t realise the value of hard-work, patience, persistence, and humility in creating a meaningful and fulfilling life for ourselves. Yet, somehow, success these days feels more like an endless struggle, an exhausting rat-race with little assurance of what lies ahead.
All these thoughts growled and churned in my mind as I contemplated success. The idea of success as ethereal perfection has been drilled into our minds from a very early age: in high school, having good grades was never enough. You had to be an all-rounder and excel at pretty much everything – leadership, co-curricular activities, competitions, standardised tests, volunteering, and “character development”. In short, we were expected to achieve holistic perfection that would then dictate our success in the future.
Fast forward to university life, and success becomes slightly more nuanced. It’s not so much about overall perfection anymore, but the toxic tendency to commodify ourselves in the quest for success persists: “I need to become a millionaire by the time I’m 25”, “I need to secure a job in one of the big four”, “I need to be on the dean’s list this year”… You get the idea. We’ve even reached the point where we talk about successful people based on their “net worth”.
While success itself isn’t inherently problematic, the way we conceptualize it is. Throughout our prime years, we’re trained to be competitive and put our achievements first. In the process, however, many of us end up getting fixated on success as an absolute end-goal, whether it’s getting that 4.0 GPA or prestigious internship. We fail to realise that success is not a checklist for ticking; rather, it is an iterative process towards growth. Sure, landing an internship at Google looks great on your resume, but what happens once it’s over? Treating success as a definite outcome is a harmful mindset to have, because it forces us to work tirelessly towards a singular purpose to the point where we lose sight of the bigger picture. Not getting that perfect GPA at the end of a semester becomes a terrible mark of failure, an assault on one’s confidence which further prevents them from bouncing back stronger.
Success didn’t come to me when I mechanically rationalised my GPA or placed all my bets at securing an internship with CNBC, it came when I simply focused on incrementally improving myself every day. Success was never my defining life purpose, but a natural consequence of trying my best.
The idea of making success one’s sole purpose also reflects its unhealthy romanticisation. From the moment we were born, we’ve been bombarded with uplifting rags-to-riches stories of leaders who’ve built an empire worth billions of dollars out of nothing. We’re taught a version of success that’s loud, excessive, over-the-top, and flawless – hence the obsession to make students “all-rounded”.
Now that I look back on my school days, I rarely recall having opportunities that allowed me to discover my unique strengths. Under the banner of all-roundedness, I was simply too busy trying to be good at everythinginstead of pursuing my true passion. I believe, however, that success can be small yet beautiful. In fact, it’s the small successes that pave way for larger ones, giving us meaning and direction for our dreams. Getting an “A” in my first four-thousand word-essay was as much a success as my first published article. Living on a mountain-top while completely self-sufficient and content is no less a success than buying a million-dollar home inBeverly Hills. The more we appreciate smallness, the clearer life gets.
It’s high time we redefine how we look at success from an educational and societal point of view, because quite frankly, the amount of stress our generation endures is insane. A charming boy once told me to justenjoy my passion – not more, not less.
In hindsight, it’s a profound piece of advice: the minute we start to quantify and measure success, we fall down the rabbit-hole of self-doubt and overthinking. Success isn’t meant to be planned, nor does it make a grand entry on stage. It is quiet, intense, and sneaky, and if you persevere hard enough, it will find you.